Venezuela has again been rocked by right-wing protests intent on overthrowing the democratically elected government of Nicholas Maduro. Since mid-February middle-class students and right-wing militias have erected barricades in major cities and traded blows with state security forces causing at least 31 deaths.
The deaths are by no means solely due to a government crackdown. Opposition forces have deployed brutal measures like suspending wires across roads, decapitating a motorcyclist, and shot dead two Chavistas (government supporters) on 6 March in a prosperous Caracas suburb.
Crippling inflation and staggering levels of crime, coupled with a sense that the “Bolivarian revolution” is stalling, the right is striking at a sensitive time for the Chavista government.
The location of the protests is revealing. They have broken out in the wealthy eastern part of the capital, Caracas, while working class areas and the poor barrios in the west have remained silent.
The old ruling elites who lead the opposition hold a deep hatred for the government’s social justice programs, won as a result of the mass movements against neo-liberalism and the election of Hugo Chavez’s government.
For instance, protesters vandalised vehicles from the government’s new bus service that provides cheap travel and also besieged the Bolivarian University, which educates students from poorer backgrounds traditionally excluded from tertiary education.
The protests are the latest in a number of right-wing attempts to topple the PSUV government. Unable to oust it through democratic elections, the right has routinely resorted to unconstitutional means, with a coup attempt in 2002 followed by a bosses’ strike in the oil industry. Both times Chavez was saved by mass pro-government mobilisations.
This time the right is exploiting the bitterness generated by an acute economic crisis. In 2012-13 billions of dollars left the country in capital flight. Despite the nationalisation of the oil industry and the channelling of wealth into social programs, the bulk of the economy remains in the hands of private capitalists.
Massive shortages of consumer products have resulted from hoarding by big business, and other forms of economic sabotage like electricity outages are common. Inflation of 56 per cent last year is being blamed by car companies like Chrysler, Toyota, Ford and General Motors for their decisions to cut back production.
But life has undoubtedly improved for the majority of Venezuelans since Chavez was first elected in 1998. Poverty declined from 50 per cent of the population to 27 per cent in 2011, school enrolment increased, and infant mortality has dropped.
All this has been made possible by harnessing the vast oil wealth of the country in the midst of high global oil prices. But this is also a source of weakness. Oil income accounts for 45 per cent of federal budget revenue, and 95 per cent of export earnings.
But some of the government’s recent economic decisions have had the opposite effect. The devaluation of the currency by 32 per cent last year increased inflation, impacting on what workers can buy with their wages.
There is real resentment at corruption in the state bureaucracy, with billions of dollars swallowed up by a new “boli-bourgoisie.” This was reflected in the April 2013 elections, only narrowly won by Maduro, Chavez’s successor.
Mass mobilisations saved the government from collapse in 2002-03 and are needed again. Crucially, safeguarding the gains of the revolutionary process necessitates a deepening of democratic control.
Chavistas have often rallied behind the chant, “they will never come back,” in reference to the right’s repeated attempts to restore the old order.
Now, however, the government is conceding to the opposition and big business. After a Peace Conference held in early March it committed to “dialogue” with business and the right through the formation of an Economic Truth Commission to tackle corruption and speculation. But the commission will be staffed by precisely the businesspeople and speculators responsible for inflation.
As Marea Socialista, a revolutionary socialist grouping inside the PSUV wrote: “The government of Maduro is committing a grave error insofar as it believes that there is a ‘violent’ right and another one that’s ‘peaceful,’ with which the government can negotiate…these sectors converge among themselves around a common objective, the defeat of the Bolivarian Process.”
Any attempt at “peace” with the capitalist class, without grassroots pressure from below and a deepening of the revolutionary process, will lead to defeat for Venezuela’s workers and the poor. There is no middle way—either the movement must advance or retreat.
Only through further mobilisations to take greater popular control of the economy, and dislodge the profiteers and speculators, can the revolutionary process move forward.
By Lachlan Marshall